Maybe digestible dreams do come true, because it's now possible, as a gluten-free eater, to get decent French bread in the Philadelphia area.

"Good bread was always the first thing our customers have asked for," says Regina Petruzziello Mason, owner and recipe developer at Lansdale's Virago, which sells gluten-free baguettes, Danish, hoagie rolls, even Irish soda bread in its bakery and cafe.

Celiacs and the gluten-intolerant used to be the beggars at the table, accepting whatever (wheatless) crumbs were thrown their way. But as more Americans are diagnosed with celiac disease or adopt a gluten-free diet by choice, there's more demand for more (and more delicious) alternatives.

"When I was diagnosed five years ago, I tried to find a cookie I liked," says Jill Colombo, owner of the Grain Exchange in Doylestown, a mostly wholesale bakery that sells products direct to consumers by phone. "There was nothing out there, so I decided to make one myself. Then I realized I should start trying to share it with other people."

These days, local specialty bakeries are turning out gluten-free products from lava cake to sticky buns. Main Line Baking Co., the tiny storefront that took up space in the Wynnewood train station about a year and a half ago, bakes spongy pumpkin muffins and cinnamon-dusted coffee cakes. At GoodEatz cafe in Reading, the doughy bounty includes apple dumplings, breadsticks, and focaccia.

There is even a very credible "Fauxtess" cupcake - chocolate with a cream center and chocolate icing - at South Street's Sweet Freedom Bakery that is not only gluten-free, but vegan, nut-free, corn-free, refined sugar-free, and soy-free as well.

As a science, gluten-free baking has evolved with better techniques and ingredients to create more convincing facsimiles. What used to be an unappealing selection of too-dry, too-crumby cookies, gritty, flavorless cupcakes, and rubbery breads, has given way to a new generation of goodies that could fool the most skeptical wheat-eater.

"Gluten is the thing that gives bread its structure - the very thing that everyone likes about bread, the middle part that bounces back when you pull it apart - is because of gluten," says Heather Aivaliotis, of Gluten Free Goodies Galore, a bakery that her mother, Karen Halm, opened in the spring in Manahawkin, N.J. "So we always have to figure out how to recreate that."

Both Aivaliotis and her mother have been diagnosed with celiac disease, and it wasn't long before Halm, an avid but self-taught baker, learned the tricks of the trade. At her store, she offers a daily selection of baguettes and sandwich bread, cookies, and seasonal treats such as fruit crumble and pies for the holidays.

"It took me over a year to develop my vanilla cupcake recipe," says Deborah Lamprey, owner and baker of Main Line Baking Co. Though she won't divulge her kitchen secrets, she says it's not so much what ingredients you use, but how you put the ingredients together.

Working under the no-flour constraint can be jarring to experienced bakers. Gluten-free bread "dough" has the texture of a pourable batter. Many gluten-free flour blends - usually containing some combination of tapioca flour, rice flour, potato starch, and/or arrowroot - depend on the addition of guar or xanthan gum to get that toothsome texture.

And then there are some secret little helpers. Halm's pumpernickel is made with a basic flour blend, but it's the dose of kasha flour that helps with texture and flavor. GoodEatz baker Rick Allebach adds sorghum and garbanzo bean flour to boost the protein in his products.

"The hardest part is getting the mouthfeel, but once we developed our own proprietary flour blend, we started to work from that, and we use the same foundation for cookies, pie crust, and pizza," he says.

Gluten-free bakers say it's worth the work because they see their mission as greater than merely selling snacks. They're offering comfort to people who have mourned the loss of their favorite foods.

"You can get a lot of products in the market now, but people really enjoy the experience of buying and eating something just-baked, whether it's bread just out of the oven or warm cookies," Aivaliotis says. "We've had people waiting outside for a batch of cookies to be ready."

Still, they're competing not only with the prewrapped equivalents and dozens of boxed mixes now on the market, but also with traditional bakeries offering wheatless options. Locally, Aux Petits Delices in Wayne and Cupcake Gourmet (Wayne and Malvern) have gluten-free items on the menu, and many other bakeries can make them by special request.

As the ante is continually being raised, grain-conscious bakeries have to step up their game. It's no longer enough to offer a memorable chocolate chip cookie made from fava flour - nowadays consumers are looking for a great gluten-free whoopie pie.

At the Grain Exchange, Colombo has developed one such special treat for her customers: mailable cupcakes in a Mason jar, with alternating layers of cake and icing. Flavors include pumpkin, chocolate, vanilla, and red velvet. "It's a nice choice for someone who has celiac and doesn't want to buy a whole cake for themselves," she says.

But the new generation of bakeries is also ready to supply plenty of full-size cakes, should anyone want to call ahead for a special order. "The challenge is to make something so that you can't tell the difference," says Mason of Virago. "People with food issues are always getting their own separate thing, and nothing makes you feel more left out than being the one person without cake. What we try to do is make something that's good enough for everyone to share it."

Scallion Goat Cheese Muffins

Makes 10 servings

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1 cup blanched almond flour

1 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

3 large eggs

1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions, white and green parts

5 ounces goat cheese (10 tablespoons)

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1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 10 muffin cups with paper liners.

2. In a large bowl, combine the almond flour, salt, baking soda, and black pepper. In a medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil and eggs. Blend the wet ingredients into the almond flour mixture with a handheld mixer until thoroughly combined, then stir in the scallions.

3. Scoop 3 tablespoons of batter into each prepared muffin cup, then press 1 tablespoon of goat cheese into each muffin.

4. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted ½ inch from the edge of the muffin (to avoid the goat cheese center) comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached. Let the muffins cool in the pan for 20 minutes, then serve.

- From Gluten-Free Cupcakes by Elana Amsterdam

 

Per serving: 156 calories, 6 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace sugar, 12 grams fat, 71 milligrams cholesterol, 346 milligrams sodium.

Cream-Filled Chocolate Cupcakes

Makes 9 servings

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For the chocolate ganache:

3/4 cup heavy cream

8 ounces dark chocolate chips (73 percent cacao)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of sea salt

For the batter:

1/4 cup coconut flour

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/3 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

4 large eggs

1/4 cup grapeseed oil

1/2 cup agave nectar

For the meringue frosting:

1/4 cup agave nectar

2 egg whites

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1. Make ganache: In a medium saucepan, bring heavy cream to a boil, then immediately remove from heat. Stir in chocolate until melted and smooth, then stir in vanilla and salt. Let ganache stand at room temperature for 5 minutes, then transfer to the refrigerator and chill until it thickens and becomes shiny and spreadable. This could take 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the temperature of your refrigerator. If frosting becomes too stiff, reheat the pan briefly over very low heat, and stir until softened. Use immediately or store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours.

2. Make cupcakes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 9 muffin cups with paper liners. In a large bowl, combine coconut flour, cocoa powder, salt, and baking soda. In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, oil, and agave nectar. Blend wet ingredients into the dry mixture with a handheld mixer until thoroughly combined.

3. Scoop ¼ cup of batter into each prepared muffin cup. Bake for 18 to 22 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached. Let cupcakes cool in the pan for 1 hour.

4. Make meringue: In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring agave nectar to a boil, stirring constantly. Decrease heat to low and simmer for 6 to 10 minutes, watching constantly and stirring occasionally, until agave nectar darkens slightly from its original amber color, then remove from the heat and set aside. In a deep bowl, whip egg whites to stiff peaks using a handheld mixer. Be sure to push the beater around the bowl to incorporate air into the whites. This step is important; if your egg whites are not whipped to stiff peaks, the recipe won't work. Stop whipping as soon as the foam of the whites is stiff enough to stand up in well-defined, unwavering peaks. Drizzle the warm agave nectar very slowly into the egg whites while whipping with a handheld mixer to keep the peaks stiff. The meringue will become pearlescent and shiny. Allow to cool to room temperature.

5. To assemble the cupcakes, remove each from its liner. Flip each cupcake upside down, and use a paring knife to carve out a circle just a bit larger than the size of a quarter and about 1 inch deep in the bottom center. Save the bottom pieces. Use the knife to hollow out a bit more around the inside, discarding the crumbs.

6. Fill a pastry bag with the meringue frosting. Insert the tip of the pastry bag into the cupcake cavities and squeeze to fill. Trim the cupcake bottom pieces to make them thinner, then seal cupcakes with the bottom pieces.

7. Frost cupcake tops with chocolate ganache to a smooth finish, then decorate with remaining meringue frosting, making a curlicue pattern across the top of each cupcake. Serve immediately.

- From Gluten-Free Cupcakes by Elana Amsterdam

 

Per serving: 289 calories, 6 grams protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 20 grams fat, 102 milligrams cholesterol, 237 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Brioche Bread

Makes 1 large loaf or 8-12 servings

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2 1/2 cups all-purpose gluten-free flour

1 3/4 teaspoons xanthan gum

1/2 cup sugar

2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast

1 teaspoon cream of tartar

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

5 extra-large eggs, at room temperature

1/2 cup warm milk, about 100 degrees

1 stick plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

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1. In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, place the flour, xanthan gum, sugar, yeast, cream of tartar, and salt and mix on low speed to combine.

2. To the bowl of dry ingredients, add the lemon zest, vinegar, and eggs and mix on low speed to combine. With the mixer on low speed, add the milk in a slow and steady stream. Once the dry ingredients have mostly incorporated into the wet ingredients, with the mixer still on low speed, add the butter one tablespoon at a time. Once all the butter has been added, turn the mixer up to at least half throttle and mix for 6 to 8 minutes to activate the xanthan gum.

3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease well a 9-by- 5-inch loaf pan with unsalted butter. Brioche has so many eggs that it rises quite a lot, so even a pan that is slightly larger than this will work well. When the dough has finished mixing, scrape it into the prepared pan and place it in a warm moist place to rise for 30 or 45 minutes until the dough has risen past the lip of the loaf pan. In cool, dry weather, the dough may take longer to rise; in warm, moist weather, it may take less.

4. After the dough has risen, place the loaf pan in the center of the preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes. Then cut a slash down the center of the bread to allow steam to escape, and tent the loaf with foil. Bake 20 to 25 minutes more, or until golden brown with a thick crust on top. Cool for 15 minutes in the loaf pan and then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

- From Gluten-Free on a Shoestring by Nicole Hunn

 

Per serving (based on 12): 234 calories, 6 grams protein, 11 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, 106 milligrams cholesterol, 256 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake

Makes 6 servings

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Nonstick cooking spray

For the topping:

1 cup water

3/4 cup packed light brown sugar

1/4 cup packed dark brown  sugar

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

1 ripe pineapple, peeled, cut into 10 ¼-inch-thick crosswise slices, and cored

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 tablespoons coconut rum

For the batter:

1 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup sorghum flour

1/4 cup glutinous (sweet) rice flour

1/4 cup cornstarch

1/2 cup tapioca flour

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

7 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature

2 large eggs

3/4 cup organic buttermilk

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

10 maraschino cherries

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1. Position an oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat an 8-inch round cake pan with cooking spray.

2. For the topping: In a 12-inch skillet, combine the water, light and dark brown sugars, and vanilla bean. Bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the pineapple slices, and saute each side for about 3 to 5 minutes, or until lightly browned. Using a slotted metal spatula, carefully transfer the pineapple slices to a plate and let cool. Cook the sugar mixture in the pan to reduce to about 1/3 cup. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter and rum. Remove the vanilla bean and set the syrup aside.

3. For the batter: In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine all of the dry ingredients and mix on low speed to blend. Add the butter and mix on low speed until blended. Add the eggs and beat on medium-high speed for 1 minute, or until light and fluffy. With the machine running, gradually add the buttermilk and beat until blended, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice. Add the vanilla and beat for 1 minute more. Set aside.

4. Arrange four of the pineapple slices in the bottom of the prepared pan. Cut the remaining slices in half to make half-moons and arrange them around the edges of the pan, curved side up, gently pressing the slices so they stick to the sides. Place a maraschino cherry in the center of each of the four pineapple slices lining the bottom of the pan. Cut the remaining cherries in half. Place one half in the arch of the half slices, being careful to have the cut side of the cherries facing the inside of the pan. Pour the sugar syrup over the pineapple slices lining the bottom of the pan. Quickly pour the batter over the pineapples and cherries. Smooth the surface with an offset spatula. Bake for 45 to 55 minutes, or until the cake is lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

5. Remove from the oven and let cool for 2 to 3 minutes. Gently run a knife around the edge of the pan. Unmold onto a serving plate and let cool for 15 minutes before slicing.

- From Blackbird Bakery Gluten-Free by Karen Morgan

 

Per serving: 575 calories, 4 grams protein, 97 grams carbohydrates, 66 grams sugar, 17 grams fat, 106 milligrams cholesterol, 375 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.